By Iyad Kallas, Independent Syrian-French consultant, researcher and learning facilitator, specialized in strategic impact-driven communication and social entrepreneurship. More at www.ikallas.com
Life has been generous to me with many A-HA moments that led me to learn first-hand about the different meanings of peace, vis-à-vis the ugly faces of conflict, polarization and antipathy. I have lived these moments in war-torn countries and refugee camps, in the large conference rooms of international organizations and the small borrowed spaces of civil society groups, in third-places, educational institutions, rehabilitation centers, prisons and schools.
I would feel ungrateful and disloyal to many extraordinary instances if I had to speak about ONE story from everything I have witnessed. Therefore, I decided to give you ten observations, learnings and epiphanies that I carry on me as invaluable keepsakes:
1- You could be one of the MANY peacebuilders out there, with or without knowing it!
I have encountered many peacebuilders that don’t even realize that they are actually building peace actively within their communities. Even those who are aware of it, do not go around presenting themselves or what they do as “peacebuilding”, especially that the concept is often materialized as a spontaneous outcome for a wide variety of courses of action.
Peacebuilding is a spectrum of possibilities; whether you are actively working on a project for preventing conflict, disengaging from radical violence, contributing to social cohesion, or simply spreading values of living through diversity in harmony and tolerance, through planned activities, or exemplary day-to-day actions, or by having an educator-demeanor enabling those around you.
I confirmed this notion when I had the privilege to assist Taylor O’Conner while building a website for “Everyday PeaceBuilding”, curating creative peacebuilding approaches from around the globe, based on an active Facebook group of +3000 members, from different walks of life. Whether academic and professional, each having a unique perception of the domain and its best practices, proving that when there’s a will to build peace, there’s a way.
2 – “Youth” is the magic word
Being a digital-nomad and globetrotter, I have been fortunate to meet and work with countless young people who were genuinely generating massive impact with their actions. Many of these individuals were doing so in an organic manner, without necessarily knowing the theoretical and academic definitions of peacebuilding. Certain terminologies became known long-overdue to some of my peers to only fill in their literature gaps, but their practical knowledge was often impeccable and based all along on a crystal clear vision of a more peaceful world.
While co-building the Global Refugee-Led Network which advocated the philosophy of involving Refugee-Led Organizations in global decision-making, it struck me to see the invincible mettle of young people in every endeavor. This was another confirmation to me that investing in the youth, whether locally or on a coordinated global level, could be paradigm shifting.
3 – Peace operates with creative apparatus
Although it sounds theoretically easy, building sustainable peace could be a complex process.
While neuroscientists and psychologists study how the brain’s wiring affects the views, predispositions, and decision-making processes of individuals and societies, and while data-analysts scrutinize massive amounts of information that can help better understand the human motives and behaviors in cases of conflict and polarization, the role of creatives in deploying the Persuasion Theory in peacebuilding remains essential, especially how it remarkably closes the circle of all the interdisciplinary actions while softening their complexity.
I have studied mind-blowing examples of creative approaches and innovative thinking while I was doing M&E work with BuildUp. Their Peace Innovators program involved the aforementioned interdisciplinary process, empowering civil society actors from artists, multimedia journalists, influencers and social media personas to use their creativity combined with data-informed contextual analysis, to design innovative projects and state-of-the-art media products for depolarizing the digital spaces.
4 – Organic grassroots initiatives work better than parachuting practices
An innovative yet strategic conceptualization of peacebuilding actions usually involves a thorough understanding of the environment in which the initiative is taking place. It is crucial for peace efforts to adapt to the local culture and context, and to the intercultural and intersectional identities of the target audiences.
With my dear colleague Honey Al Sayed, we learned a lot while co-leading a good deal of Media and Arts for Peace workshops around the globe. We observed how our workshops and training programs work best when we localize the experience, when we have a local partner co-leading the programs with us, when we assist the participants to have more agency over their efforts, and when we conduct ourselves to be learning facilitators who provide debatable case studies and creative design-thinking tools, rather than preaching parachuting one-size-fits-all mode of thinking and doing.
5 – Every “peacebuilder” is an artist
Using popular arts and sociocultural traditions to deliver an impactful message or tell a persuasive story has always been the way how people grow, everywhere. I have witnessed very closely the effectiveness of artivism in war-torn zones (like Syria, where I am from), to other developing countries in the MENA region, Asia and Africa, and finally in more stable contexts in the United States and Europe (especially France, where I am currently based).
Art is all around us, in natural and artificial forms. It is most versatile; It has been used systematically to cause harm and destruction (the Rwandan Civil War comes to mind), but fortunately, it has also been used methodically to mobilize millions of people (to me, the Brazilian Olodum festival is one of the greatest examples)
6 – Media is NEVER neutral
When discussing journalistic deontology, the objectivity, transparency and independence of journalistic practices are almost non-negotiable (at least in countries that respect Freedom of Speech). However, the discussion of neutrality is always present for all media professionals!
Between 2011 and 2019, I co-developed SouriaLi Radio, to create a dialogue space for Syrians about the uprising and the following wars in Syria. All of my team members experienced empirically how the media cannot play a positive role while being utterly neutral. During the first few months of broadcasting, we came to a conclusion that our production should not be neutral when it comes to prioritizing social responsibility, promoting peace building endeavors and giving platform to those who lead the positive impact. (cont. in #7)
7 – Counter and alternative narratives are essential for peace-oriented dialogues
(cont from #6) – Throughout our SouriaLi adventure, it was difficult to maneuver around landmines of hate speech, violent ideologies and universes of infested information disorder around us. One of the most difficult practices to which we had to adhere was to stop ourselves from being dragged into futile conformational discussions. That is why we found refuge in presenting countering and alternative narratives of the events, which contributed to building a virtual home for many Syrians on opposing sides to start dialogue. (cont. in #8)
8 – Building and sustaining peace takes time, resources, sweat and tears
(cont. from #7) – In Syria’s case (like many other contexts of active conflicts), it was difficult to speak about concepts like constructing equity, bridging harmony, reconciling past trauma, and resolving present conflict, while there was no end in sight. We tried to remain loyal to peace phases, with an inside-out perspective, adapted to Syria’s situation.
It was somewhat unrealistic to discuss post-conflict reconstruction and transitional phases while blood was still fresh on the streets. We almost lost hope! But, thanks to our wide base of +500K audience, we had many small stories and anecdotes to support our qualitative analysis of how our work has impacted individuals and groups around us.
It is extremely hard sometimes to see results from a short distance, and even harder to have enough retreat to look at everything from a macro-level … But, the show must ALWAYS go on!
9 – Our domain has a lot of emotional stress, trauma, but also a lot of empathy
I see peacebuilders as disappointed yet optimist idealists. Building empathy is an essential prerequisite for achieving impact in this field, which is wonderful! However, empathy comes in one package with despairing traumatizing and stressful daily moments, and it hurts most when damage comes when least expected, from inner circles and supposed allies.
During an intervention that I conducted in a detention center with a group of “radicalized” individuals, the harshest thing with which I had to deal was the indifference of the accommodating directors at the detention center, which rendered a lot of potential into ashes.
What peacebuilders live daily is very difficult. If you consider yourself one, give yourself a pat on the back. And if you identify someone around you as a peacebuilder, give them a hug, or a nod of encouragement.
10 – There are not enough peacebuilders in our world
No, this does not contradict with the very first point of this article …Yes, there are so many of us “peacebuilders” out there, but never enough!
It is never too late to invest in peace. Many people have an epiphany sometime during their lives and integrate peacebuilding actions in what they do. Regardless of what domain of activity you are in, it is sometimes enough to find the magical link to conduct what you do towards contributing to bettering our world and making it somewhat more peaceful.
Now is as good a time as any!
“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one… I hope someday you’ll join us”
– John Lennon